Distant Learning
Mother Jones|November/December 2021
New immigrant students had the most to gain at Virginia’s Justice High—and the most to lose once the pandemic hit.
By Alexandra Starr

On the night Esteban’s mother went to the hospital, five ambulances crowded the street in front of their red-brick walk-up in the DC suburbs. It was late May 2020, and COVID-19 had swept through their densely packed apartment complex, where many of the one- and two-bedroom units housed multiple immigrant families from Central America. More than half of the people in their zip code who were tested that April had the virus—a rate roughly 20 percent higher than in the rest of Virginia—and 17-year-old Esteban, his parents, and the family with whom they shared their apartment were among them. For weeks his mother had a splitting headache, and her throat hurt so much she had trouble swallowing. By that May evening, she had deteriorated to the point where she could barely breathe on her own.

Out on the sidewalk, amid the ambulances’ flashing lights, Esteban held his infant sister, Amalia, while his father climbed into a waiting Uber with his mother. (They hadn’t called 911 because one of Esteban’s uncles had been ferried in an ambulance after he had contracted COVID and incurred a bill he had no way of paying.) As the only English-speaking member of the family, Esteban argued he should go to the hospital. His father disagreed. “You need to take care of the baby,” he said.

It was a terrifying prospect. When his parents brought Amalia home seven months earlier, Esteban had gazed in wonder at her delicate, tiny form and refused to hold her. “He was scared he might hurt her,” his father recalled. Now, with his parents heading to the emergency room, Esteban was in charge of looking after his sister for the very first time. It would be the longest three weeks of his life.

The baby cried incessantly. She had been breastfed and initially refused the bottles of formula Esteban tried to give her. He was still fighting off the virus and was terrified of infecting her, so he wore a mask. But one of the few ways to soothe her was close physical contact, so he took to wrapping her in a light blue blanket and cradling her to his stout, muscular frame. “I was so scared I’d get her sick,” he told me.

In the family’s sparsely furnished living room, a scroll inscribed with Jeremiah 29:11 hung on the wall: “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Next to it were framed certificates of attendance commemorating Esteban’s perfect school record at Justice High, a nearby public school where he was a junior.

He tried to stay in the good graces of his teachers, installing himself on a threadbare crimson couch and logging on to classes on his school-issued laptop. But his baby sister, who had recently started to crawl, always seemed in danger of toppling chairs and putting stray pens in her mouth. When he cordoned her off where she couldn’t hurt herself, she cried for her mother. Esteban took to turning his microphone off during class. He became a spectral presence, volunteering answers only when Amalia took one of her sporadic naps.

His teachers emailed, trying to find out what was going on. That’s when he told them about his predicament. Before the pandemic, his parents had steady employment on a construction site, but now his father was in and out, scrounging for day jobs. (Work was scarce enough that his dad had lined up for basic staples when the Honduran Consulate created a distribution center in their neighborhood.) The teachers alerted Jessica Milliken, chair of the English-for-speakers-of-other-languages (ESOL) department at Justice, who describes her job as “part teacher, part social worker, part mom.” When she phoned, the situation was worse than she’d imagined. Esteban was severely depressed, he told her. The family had no food. If his dad didn’t find work soon, they wouldn’t make rent.

The coronavirus pandemic upended the lives of kids like Esteban across the country. For starters, the shuttering of in-person school has been particularly hard on teenagers; in one national poll, nearly half of parents reported that their teens’ mental health had suffered since face-to-face classes were suspended in March 2020. The academic consequences were real, too: The consulting firm McKinsey estimated that at the end of the school year, students at highly diverse schools like Justice were, academically, an average of six months behind where they would have been had the outbreak never happened. The Fairfax County public school district found that the number of F’s received in middle and high school since the start of the pandemic had nearly doubled, to 11 percent. According to another national study, as many as 3 million kids—many of them children of color—disengaged completely from their first pandemic school year.

COVID’s impact was especially dire for undocumented students. Justice doesn’t inquire whether enrollees are citizens or legal residents, but roughly 400 kids— or one-fifth of the student body—are recently arrived immigrants, and school leaders know that many lack documentation. (This was the case for Esteban and several others in this story, whose names were changed to protect their identities.) Families who remained healthy still had to contend with unemployment and potential eviction, while benefits that helped other poor households navigate the pandemic— like stimulus checks and enhanced food stamps—weren’t generally available to the undocumented. English-language learners, in particular, already dropped out at higher rates and were more susceptible to depression and suicidal ideation than their peers; a report from the Internationals Network for Public Schools, which serves newcomer immigrant kids, noted that enrollment and attendance were down, the number of students working significant hours was up, and “stress, anxiety, distractions, and family responsibilities were among the greatest obstacles to virtual learning.”

These forces weighed heavily on Justice’s ESOL students and on the teachers and administrators who poured time and resources into helping them get through the overlapping crises. As the pandemic raged on, week after week, month after month, into and out of school years, it grew clear just how heavy their load would become.

UNTIL THREE YEARS AGO, Justice High bore the name of the Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart. Its mascot was a soldier on horseback, hoisting the rebel flag. This had been a way for the school board to register its discontent with the US Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which came down five years before the school opened in 1959. Predominantly white at its founding, Stuart High School drew students from the wealthy community of Lake Barcroft, where million-plus-dollar homes encircle a reservoir. Alumni include the children of prominent politicians—Robin Dole, daughter of Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), graduated in 1972—as well as Academy Award winner Julianne Moore.

In the 1950s and ’60s, a few miles from the lake houses and their pontoon boats, developers constructed more affordable apartments. Fair housing laws and an overhaul of the US immigration system in 1965 allowed for an increasingly diverse community to settle in the area. Salvadorans fleeing their country’s civil war and refugees from Southeast Asia moved into the region. A prominent mosque, the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center, was built in 1983, and immigrants from Sudan, Pakistan, and Ethiopia arrived in increasing numbers. By the late 1980s, when I began attending Stuart, the school was majority-minority. Now, kids of color make up nearly 80 percent of the student body, and students hail from 60 countries and speak 56 languages.

In the early 2000s—right around the time National Geographic lauded the school in a lengthy feature highlighting the school’s multicultural identity—data gathered under No Child Left Behind made plain how poorly the nation’s English language learners were faring. A national standardized exam administered in 2011, for example, found that their eighth-grade reading scores lagged behind those of their native-English-speaking peers by 44 percent. While subsequent changes to the law meant most schools didn’t face serious consequences for failing to close the achievement gap, in 2010 the Virginia Department of Education started requiring schools to meet annual graduation benchmarks to maintain their state accreditation.

The school didn’t fare well by that metric, in large part because many newly arrived students didn’t stay in school past the age of 18, when they were no longer legally mandated to be enrolled. A pilot program introduced in 2016—a year before the district, after considering renaming the school in honor of several civil rights leaders, changed Stuart’s name to Justice High—helped buoy the graduation rate by allowing students to earn credit for classes as they gained English proficiency. This made graduating in four years a possibility for kids who arrived as teenagers. The change also helped Justice hang on to its accreditation, though just barely: As recently as 2019 the school passed muster “with conditions.”

The prospect of overseeing Justice’s new program convinced Milliken to transfer from a nearby middle school where she’d also headed the English-language learners program. Before COVID came along, Milliken—whose long blond hair led students to call her La Rubia—would patrol the halls with ramrod posture. Her office was a welcoming pit stop: Drawers overflowed with granola bars and peanut butter crackers, a makeshift wardrobe held more than a dozen donated winter coats, and there were oversized cardboard boxes stuffed with backpacks and three-ring binders for the taking. Kids would stop by for a snack and supplies, and occasionally confide about what was happening at home.

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